Issue #11 |

The Disappearing Place

They’d chosen a hiking trip for their budget-friendly honeymoon, but they were late driving to the bed and breakfast they’d reserved, a converted lighthouse on the shores of Lake Superior. They were traveling due north to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and didn’t realize the time zone changed when they crossed the state line into Michigan. No late arrivals, the website had said.

Stephen was in the last year of his biochemistry PhD, and Dicey was finishing up her Masters in Social Work. She had a job lined up in the Child Protective Services department in Chicago, helping find foster parents for kids no one wanted to take. Her friends, even Stephen, had asked if she had the cool heart and head such a bleak job required. She knew her friends thought of her as sensitive. You’re going to fall in love with every kid you work with, aren’t you, Stephen said, and there was a little fear in his voice, as though he could look down the road of their lives and see them adopting or fostering a houseful of kids. She didn’t know him well enough yet to know if he was teasing.

Maybe, she said. Stephen made her feel defensive at times, with his sardonic look, his eyebrows climbing his humorous, mannered face. She had warned him after just a few dates, when she was beginning to feel rapturous: I fall in love easy.

She wasn’t sure if that could be classified as their first argument. It ended with him putting his fingers in the waistband of her underwear and pulling her close. She wasn’t sure who had won but her mother had said, Once you’re married it won’t be about winning and losing anymore. Now if one of you is angry then you’ve both lost.

They took a few wrong turns on gravel roads. By the time they arrived, it was dark; all they could see was the bleached white birch trees in the halo of their headlights. A deer ran into the road and froze there, its eyes glowing greenly.

It’s telling us to turn back, Stephen said, his voice strangely solemn.

What? The hairs on her neck prickled, even though it was only a deer. The woods here were thick and must be teeming with them, eating people’s gardens and frustrating their dogs with their leaping white-tailed asses.

He pressed the horn, and the deer jumped out of their ring of light and back into the darkness.

It was pouring rain when they finally found the right turnoff and saw the lighthouse erupt into the sky, its red and white candy stripes glowing. Functioning lighthouse! The website promised. But tonight at least, the light was out.

You run for the door, Stephen said. I’ll get our bag.

She ran through the rain with her hood up, and waited for a long, drenching moment before a thin older woman came and ushered her inside. You’re late, she observed as Dicey stood dripping in a small, cluttered kitchen full of frog knickknacks. Every spare inch of the window sills was covered in ceramic frogs, staring at her bug-eyed.

We forgot about the time difference.

From where?

Chicago.

The woman gave a snort, and instructed her to hang up her coat and put her wet boots on the mat. You missed dinner, she said. You’ll want to get your bags.

Oh yes. My husband’s getting them. It was still so strange to say the word husband, and to speak with any possessiveness. It was too mature. People belonged to each other in these official ways when they were much older.

The woman showed Dicey the bedroom, which was cozy and well-appointed. On the bed was a beautiful quilt, its abstract pattern like a hedge maze, a lost spiral of green and white. Did you make this? she asked, venturing a guess.

The woman nodded stiffly. I’ve made every quilt in this place.

It’s beautiful.

The woman didn’t smile, but her black eyes gleamed slightly, like a crow that has spotted something it likes. Breakfast is at 8, she said, and left.

She wondered what was taking Stephen so long, and if she should go out to check on him. But rain was lashing the windowpanes, and she was finally getting dry, her wet socks exchanged for slippers. Wasn’t this the sort of duty husbands did, and that wives could benefit from?

There was a light coming from the sitting room at the end of the hall, and she thought she heard voices. She followed the sound to a little parlor with plaid flannel couches and a low banked fire in a stone hearth. A couple was holding coffee mugs and wore matching cream sweaters. From the low heat of their voices she thought they may have been arguing.

Oh—sorry to interrupt, she said, backing out of the room.

Not at all, the man said. We were just talking here. Come on in.

His Northern accent, pure Yooper, was warm and nasal, with a built-in friendliness. The woman’s brows were creased; she smiled briefly and looked away. Dicey had the sudden feeling that the argument they were having was not minor.

Have you been here before? the man asked.

No, but we heard the hiking around here was good. My husband—she still stumbled over the word, the official adultness of it—and I, we’re here on our honeymoon.

How nice, the man said. Congratulations. It’s beautiful country. You can’t believe the quiet. You feel like you’ve really dropped off the map.

The woman sipped her coffee in an increasingly tense silence. We’ve always enjoyed the Sugarloaf trek, the man said.

Have you been out there at night? Dicey asked. I heard you can sometimes see the Northern Lights. She looked hopefully at the woman. But the woman looked away disdainfully.

Maybe, the man said. But if you’re out there after dark, you’ll have wolves to contend with. He pronounced it “woves.” It made Dicey think of the host of the inn, weaving her blankets. There was another one hanging on the wall here, green and white again, an elaborate snaking maze with no clear center.

We come here sometimes, just to get away, the man said, and sipped from his mug. His comfort and ease didn’t make sense, with his terse, unfriendly wife. Dicey shrugged inwardly. Well, goodnight, she said, and walked out of the room.

She paused in the hall, though. After a moment the voices resumed, the woman’s low and submissive, the man’s increasingly angry. You embarrassed me, was all she could hear. There was a line of contempt in that voice that she couldn’t match with his beaming, red-cheeked face. She thought what she had mistaken for disdain on the woman’s face could have been something else. Something like fear.

Dicey? Dicey?

Stephen was calling from down the hall. She went into the kitchen, where he stood with the bags at his feet, drenched and panting. He looked wild-eyed.

What’s wrong?

He blinked furiously. Looked around the warm, cluttered kitchen and seemed to recalibrate. Nothing, he said. Nothing.

You look like you’ve seen a ghost. She grabbed a kitchen towel and patted his damp head.

He shuddered. It was nothing, he said. And she let it go. She could see him growing calmer as the quietness of the room and its ceramic frogs asserted itself. She was beginning to learn his moods, how he could shift easily from contentment to annoyance and back again. She could tell when he loved her, and when he loved her a bit less. There were these maze-like layers to any relationship, and you were supposed to be able to penetrate them to the heart of what the other person really wanted from you. Sometimes she needed to make herself small when he didn’t have room for her in his thoughts. She poured him a cup of tea from the kettle, and moved the bags the rest of the way into their room.

Later, when they were dry and sitting in the bed under flannel sheets, she asked, So tell me really. What did you see? A deer? A wolf? and with a little laugh, Did you see any woves?

Woves, he laughed. But he shook his head. Really, it was nothing. We’ve got honeymooning to do. And he pulled her to him.

 

Late at night she woke in the unfamiliar room. Her heart was pounding but she couldn’t move. She’d had sleep paralysis before, this terrifying rigidity of her own limbs, the feeling of intrusion on her own body. She saw a specialist about it once, and learned to concentrate on her breathing, slowly loosen her clenched jaw, and focus on the small parts of her that were still under her control. She wiggled her toes and fluttered her eyelids. After a few minutes, the feeling eased. It was only then that she noticed Stephen wasn’t in the bed with her.

Where was he?

She listened for sounds in the bathroom but heard none. The only light out the window, the merest sheen of moonlight on the lake. She waited, listening to the water rustle faintly on the shore.

After a while, an unknowable amount of time later, he slid into bed beside her. She wanted to ask where he’d gone, but feared sounding accusatory. Marriages were about trust, weren’t they? About respecting the other person’s mysteries? When he wrapped his arm around her, she pretended to be asleep.

When his breathing steadied, she lifted his arm from her body and went to the bathroom. She put on a robe and stepped into the hall, where their host had left an electric kettle and teabags. She was drinking from a mug there when the other bedroom door opened and the other woman stepped out.

Hello, Dicey whispered.

The woman inclined her head. Her silence now seemed designed not to interrupt the sleeping quiet. Her hands moved quickly to pour tea in two mugs. She turned to go.

Wait. Are you all right? Dicey asked quietly. What’s your name? Are you — in trouble?

The woman turned back. Now something had changed on her face; she was wide-eyed, frightened. Everything’s fine, she said. There’s nothing wrong with me.

That’s not what I meant. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. Dicey reached for her arm, but the woman was retreating backwards down the hall, mugs in hand, nudging her own door open with her hip. I’m back, she said to the room Dicey could not see.

She crawled back into bed with Stephen. Where did you go? he murmured, as if he hadn’t disappeared earlier.

Just to get a drink. But the other woman—she seems so strange. I don’t know what I said.

You didn’t say anything wrong. There’s something off about her, that’s all.

What if there is something wrong? What if she’s being—held against her will or something?

You always think of the most dramatic interpretation.

He had accused her of this before, when her job had trained her to look into the fearful glances between a child and a parent, to try to see the unseen thing.

Sometimes people are just strange, he said.

In the morning, she dressed and walked to the breakfast table, where the couple from last night were sipping coffee, the woman drizzling syrup slowly on a pancake. So what are your plans? the man asked.

She told them they were planning to hike near Little Presque Isle and possibly go into the Hiawatha state forest.

The couple nodded pleasantly. Whatever fear or disgust was in the woman’s eyes seemed gone in the morning light. Did you read the information binder in your room? she said. Our host has compiled some stories about the old lighthouse keepers who used to live here. She reached for the kettle and refreshed her husband’s mug without his having to ask.

Dicey wondered how long it would be before she and Stephen were doing the same thing, living comfortably in the gaps they left for each other. It seemed both something to look forward to and something to fear. A thrilling dread. To subsume yourself in another’s life.

Outside the window, she saw the back of Stephen’s head. He liked his morning coffee in silence; at home, she often found him out on the balcony. He must have taken one look at the full table and headed outside with his cup.

She smiled back at the couple. And what are your plans today?

The woman said, we’re going kayaking. Out on the lake.

Oh wow, I didn’t know you could at this time. She had seen big chunks of ice floating out on Lake Superior, knocking into each other with booming cracks.

It’s not all frozen this time of year, she said. Now you can, if you know what you’re doing.

 

The trail was listed as moderate. A nine-mile hike through Hiawatha Forest, following McKeever Lake’s shore. It promised beautiful lake views and fall foliage, but the trail was challenging enough to deter casual leaf peepers.

They brought daypacks with trail mix, water, bug spray, and sunscreen, even though the air was cool and wet, last night’s rain still hanging in the air. She was a maker of lists. She liked safety, planning, preparation. She checked off each item as Stephen loaded it in their packs. At the last minute she folded a twenty dollar bill up small and crammed it in the bottom of her boot, in case they needed some cash. Her mother had taught her to do this when she was a teenager, in case she was out with a guy she didn’t like and she needed cab fare home. Her mother called it her fuck off money. You should always have fuck off money, she said.

Their cell phone reception was nil, so she pinned a note to the bulletin board in the kitchen, saying Stephen and Dicey will be going hiking, mentioning which trail. She slipped the note in between jokes cut from the newspaper about common slang words that Yoopers use, and a brochure for a glass-bottomed boat tour, promising views of the wrecked Edmund Fitzgerald at the bottom of Lake Superior.

The trail began as an almost invisible gap in the wall of trees beside a three-car parking lot. There was a ranger station there, empty, with trail maps and the usual warnings for inexperienced hikers. They walked in single file in a purposeful silence for the first half hour, moving at a good pace through dense yellow brush and catgrass whisking out of deep blue lakewater. For a while they emerged from the trees on a cliff edge looking out at McKeever Lake. This small lake already had large sheets of ice.

Do you think Lake Superior freezes solid? she asked.

He scoffed. It never freezes all the way. It’s too big.

From the lake shore, can you see all the way to Canada?

Of course not. It’s simple geometry. You can’t see more than a few miles.

He was impatient whenever she asked dumb questions she should have known the answers to. Yet she kept asking them, sometimes even when she knew the answers already. Maybe it was to rile him, and maybe it was to play this role she’d grown comfortable in—the curious, dumb girl with so much to learn. Men felt good when they were explaining things, and occasionally she obliged them. That was all. It was not a submissive thing, it was just a way of being more adorable, and who didn’t want to be adored?

She thought she could press a little more. What was it you saw last night?

When?

When you went to get the bags. You acted like there was something out there.

He shifted away from her. Come on, you’ve got to give it a rest. It was nothing.

It didn’t seem like nothing.

He sighed. She could be like a dog with a bone sometimes, she knew. She considered it a good quality. When she was asking her foster families questions about what really went on in a home, she had to persist until they knew they couldn’t hide or evade or drive her back with protestations. She had to be sure she wanted to know.

I thought I saw something impossible, Stephen said.

What was it?

Like — you ever get that feeling, that you’re not really where you are? That you’re just dreaming, and when you wake up, all of this might disappear?

All what?

This life. Everything you’ve worked to build for yourself. Maybe it’s just an illusion. Maybe it belongs to someone else, and it’s not for you after all. He swept an arm around her, pulled her close. Let’s keep going. We want to be back before dark.

Or the woves will get us, she said.

They reached a crossroads not marked on the map, a long, wide road through the trees thick with fallen leaves. This must be the right turn we saw on the map, he said.

I didn’t think we’d hiked long enough to reach that, she said. It looks like the path goes on.

There was a gap in the trees straight ahead, albeit on a much narrower deer track.

Where’s the trail marker? he asked.

They found the blue splash of paint on a slender birch tree that had fallen in the middle of the road. It was impossible to right the tree and figure out which way it originally pointed.

We could try going straight to see if we can find the next marker, she said.

Stephen threw up his hands. It’s obviously this way. Look at how wide this road is. A horse and carriage could drive through it.

That doesn’t mean it’s the right way. It could be a farmer’s road.

Then it’ll be a shortcut, he said. He was already tramping off down the road, sending up clouds of dead leaves with each step. She shrugged and followed.

The road soon narrowed, becoming hilly. They sweated and breathed in the resounding silence. No bird calls in this part of the woods; no frogs or insects on a chilly fall day. The only sounds the rustle of their boots on the leaves. It felt eerie. Like the woods were holding their breath. The ground was dotted everywhere with little buds. The new growth all had furled their leaves in the shape of sharp little spears, so they could punch through last year’s fallen leaves. Everything had to fight to survive here.

The appearance of a wooden sign, half-covered in moss, startled them both. McKeever campground, it read.

I didn’t see any campground on the map, Stephen said.

Me neither. Are you sure we’re—

Relax, it’s just some old campground nobody uses anymore.

As they walked on, an old saw horse emerged among the trees. CLOSED FOR OFF SEASON, it read. They stepped around it. A few small sheds and cabins were visible now.

They look so quiet, she remarked. Like they’re abandoned.

Maybe they are.

Still no birdsong. When she looked up at Stephen, ahead on the trail, he had that strange, almost frightened look again.

What is it?

This reminds me a of a place, he said.

What place?

Just this camp I went to as a kid.

You never told me you were a camp kid, she said, trying to joke.

They moved to the nearest building and tried the door; it was locked. They wandered on to the next one. The leaves they kicked up were piled so thickly that the cabins looked half-buried.

Well, it’s true, he said. I don’t talk much about it. Something happened there.

She stopped. This felt like one of those times when a couple moved toward one another, stepping suddenly onto a new plane of intimacy. She’d looked forward to those moments after the wedding, hoping that saying the vows would launch them easily together. But so far, she’d been disappointed. Intimacy did not arrive on schedule; it did not come neatly packaged with the rituals.

Now she stood still, afraid of chasing the moment away. What happened to you at camp? she asked.

It wasn’t to me, he said quickly. It was another boy. He kept walking. He went up to another cabin and tried the door. This one was unlocked. She watched him slip inside. After a moment, she followed him.

The small, dark cabin was lined with bunk beds, stripped of their mattresses. Stephen was halfway down the center aisle, feeling every bedpost as if searching for something.

What happened to the boy? she asked.

Hmm?

The boy at camp, what happened to him?

Oh. He disappeared, Stephen said without turning. There was a massive search through the woods. They trawled the lake. Nothing. They thought maybe a stranger took him. But they eventually settled on a bear or coyote. Those animals won’t even leave bones.

She shivered. That must have been very frightening, she said.

Oh, it was. I had these dreams for a long time afterwards. I’d be walking in the woods and— he stopped, his hand on a bedframe.

And what, Stephen?

He was silent. The shaggy back of his head looked alien to her.

What happened in your dream?

He held out his hand. Come see.

She walked forward slowly. What do you—

Look.

Carved on the inside of the bedframe was some rough lettering: S+D, inside a circle. Or maybe it was a heart.

She felt suddenly cold. How did you know that would be there?

He looked at her for a long moment. Because kids always carve their initials into camp beds, he said.

She had to laugh: the strange, building portent of the day, and its anticlimax. The laugh came out high-pitched and nervous.

I guess so, she said. Like girlfriends and boyfriends.

He nodded, and dropped his hand.

Was the boy who vanished your friend? she asked.

But the moment had passed. I’d rather not talk about it anymore, he said, formally.

They left the cabin and walked on up the road beside the wind-ruffled lake, watching small cyclones of leaves lift into the air. They had not seen any blue markers for some time, but Stephen kept assuring her that once they were through the campground, the trail would pick up again.

When the path petered out into nothing among the trees, she said, Stephen, we have to turn back.

Come on. I’m sure it goes on from here.

We went the wrong way back there, she said. Why can’t you just admit it? She was tired now, frustrated with his stubborn refusals.

Look, you wait here, he said. I’ll go up ahead and see if I can find the trail.

We shouldn’t separate.

I’ll just look around that cluster of bushes — he pointed a little ways — and come straight back, he promised.

Ok, fine.

It was astonishing how quickly a person could disappear from sight. One moment he was ahead of her on the trail, smiling over his shoulder, that cryptic smile that she had first seen him give her in a campus bar, and made her curious to find out who he was. Then he was gone among the fall undergrowth, the busy shout of golden leaves.

She waited a long time. Or was it a long time? Time passed so deceptively in this deep quiet. She wished she had glanced at her watch when he left. She marked the time now; if he didn’t come for another ten minutes, she would have to go after him. She breathed deeply, and did not allow any thoughts whatsoever of disaster scenarios.

The ten minutes passed.

Stephen! she shouted, louder and louder, until her voice cracked.

She wondered if he was playing a prank on her, punishing her a little, for allowing herself to think spooky thoughts. He was a serious person, though, who didn’t pull pranks. Or was he? Now she wasn’t sure.

She decided she would walk exactly one hundred steps forward and see what she could see. She did so, counting under her breath and stepping with big, determined strides. She made plenty of noise and called Stephen’s name as she went.

But there was nothing different to see. A hundred steps further, the woods looked disconcertingly similar. She stared as hard as she could in every direction, trying to see a disturbance in the bushes, his head, his backpack, a torn piece of clothing.

Nothing.

If he had fallen and broken a leg, she would know what to do. First aid, elevate, compress, mark the place, go for help.

What do you do if your husband disappears?

The important thing was not to get lost herself. It would be easy to go blundering off the trail in a panic, and end up at the bottom of a ravine.

She had to re-find the trail and go for help. The safest, surest way was to retrace their steps and go back exactly the way they had come.

Before she left the area, she unwound her red scarf and tied it in a firm double knot around a white birch tree, so she would be able to find the spot again and point out to the ranger exactly where things had gone wrong.

She retraced their way back down the trail. It meant more than an hour of hiking at an anxious half trot, nerves straining not to trip on a root and twist her ankle, breath puffing into the space before her. There was no time, now the pleasant hours spent walking in the woods seemed foolish, wasted. Why had they gone so deep? What were they trying to prove? Chickadees called as she passed, invisible warnings.

The sun was low on the horizon when she finally reached the car. It sets early here, her host had warned. The ranger’s station was still dark and empty, but there was a red emergency phone in a dingy plastic case. She picked it up and heard nothing. Hello? Hello?

She was panicking, failing to follow instructions. Dial 9 to reach the ranger station, it clearly said on the phone. She dialed, heard the comforting digital ring.

Munising Park services, said a bored Midwestern voice.

Hello, she said, and went breathless. It was too much of a relief, hearing a normal person on the other end of the line.

Is this an emergency? the woman asked.

Yes. Finally finding her breath again. I was hiking in the woods with my husband and he’s disappeared. He went ahead of me on the trail and — he’s gone. Just gone.

Hold on, dear. The voice was so soothing. Tell me your location and what trail you were on. We’re going to send a ranger.

She waited, sitting on the hood of the car, while the sun began to set. No cars passed on the two-lane road. Twenty minutes later, a jeep branded with the park services logo pulled up behind her and a young man got out. He kept his peaked hat low over his eyes in the low sunlight.

You want to tell me what happened? he asked. His voice was flat, neither reassuring nor scolding. Judgment in abeyance.

She explained again what had happened, less breathless this time.

I think I know the place, he said. There’s a road that can get us close. We’ll take a shortcut.

They bumped along a farmer’s dirt road in the jeep, then cut efficiently across two fields and through a patch of forest before reaching the wide leafy road. This is it, she said. There was her scarf, still tied to the tree, looking forlorn. She explained, We thought we’d gotten off the trail, so he said he would go a little ahead to find a marker. He went around those bushes. Then I couldn’t see him anymore.

The ranger told her to wait there and went beating through the bushes, calling Stephen’s name. He made a wide radius around her, checking in every direction. At times he disappeared from view, but she could always hear him rustling and thumping. She remembered that the sounds from Stephen stopped as soon as he vanished from view.

There’s no sign of him, the ranger said. Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand him? Maybe a miscommunication about where you’d meet?

No. He told me to wait here. Had he? She was sure he’d said something of the sort.

You never should have separated, he said.

She lowered her head, ashamed. If you had to call a park ranger to help you find your husband, several things had already gone wrong. Blunders had been made that she felt responsible for. Wasn’t it her job to know where her husband was, what he was doing, who he was with? With some couples she knew, this instinct seemed to exist internally, like an extra organ. They were always in text communication, they knew at any time of day what the other was doing. Selfish girl, she’d failed to grow this part of herself.

Could he be playing a joke on you? the ranger went on. Like he’s hiding under the back seat of your car right now, waiting to scare you?

He’s not the kind of person to do that, she said. But as soon as the words came out of her mouth, she doubted them. Did she know him that well? Could she be absolutely certain that, as an attempt to be daring and memorable on their honeymoon, he had not made some bad calculation, chosen to hide and surprise her? Some men liked to do that to their girlfriends. Her old roommate had once dated a man who lurked outside the window of their ground floor apartment, wearing a hockey mask. He’d hidden in her closet and jumped out of it one night. He seemed to think she liked feeling absolute terror, and maybe she did. She said being with him was never dull.

But not Stephen. Not serious, earnest Stephen. She had to know him that well, at least.

Here’s the thing, the ranger said. Right up past that bush, it’s just a sea of mud, from last night’s rain. There’s no way not to step in it. And I see your footprints, and mine. No one else’s.

The ranger was watching her with a look she had seen men give her before: cops, postal workers, DMV employees. It was a mixture of boredom and disbelief. Ready to disregard whatever tedious story she told or hysterics she pulled out. When they were denying an insurance claim or telling her she didn’t have the authority to accomplish whatever it was she wanted done. Always, then, she had to weigh whether it was worth it, whether she really needed doing what she thought she needed. Was it worth it to get angry, to insist? Would she be seen as unhinged, would she risk losing their allegiance to push through her demand?

He could have gone back to your hotel, the ranger said.

She wanted to believe it. Maybe he’d been angrier than she thought about the way she’d pushed him, dragged the camp story out of him. Maybe he’d taken his first opportunity to get away from her. Once, when they’d been in the middle of an argument on a weekend trip to Philadelphia, hissing at each other across a restaurant table, he’d pulled out enough cash to pay for his meal, put it quietly on the table and walked out. By the time she’d paid and hurried after him, he was gone. She went to their airbnb and waited, pacing back and forth their tiny rented room, unable to read or concentrate on anything. He didn’t return until past midnight. When the knock came on the door, and she opened the door to see him there, she was surprised how she felt: almost disappointed. Then they held each other in a frantic silence. The rest of the trip was strained, both of them anxious and polite.

She remembered waiting for him to come back to the room, and how it felt, to be alone in a strange city without him. As the hours passed, she could feel herself trying to reconcile with the idea that she was alone. Making herself okay with this altered reality. When relationships were new and fragile, that was how you protected yourself: you prepared for the day when you would be alone again.

Maybe he went back to the bed and breakfast, she heard herself say faintly.

She took the ranger’s card and drove slowly back to the bed and breakfast. The metallic smell of her own sweat and dirt filling the car, with no trace of his aftershave or his cinnamon gum. No sign of his sweat. They both had a car key, but he had not been in this car for hours.

The gravel parking lot had one other car in the lot. She thought it belonged to the other couple. She opened the small door to the kitchen. Funny how different things looked in daylight when you were entering a strange house alone. Now the cluttered mismatch of knickknacks, the ceramic frogs, did not look homey; everything looked like it was in distressing disarray. A vague sense of threat to the way they teetered from every surface, a sense of a house in disorder.

Hello? She called softly, in case someone was napping in the bedrooms. Stephen? Stephen?

She heard nothing but the ticking of a retro 70’s cat clock above the stove.

She walked deeper into the house, tracking mud on the carpet. Is anybody home?

The house seemed like a tomb, as though no one had disturbed its air in many years. She remembered the helpful binder in their bedroom that told the stories of the lighthouse keepers in previous decades who had let loneliness drive them mad. Last night she’d flipped through the binder. This lightkeeper, found hanged in the woods. That one, died of grief when his sister, his only relative in the world, passed. It was a macabre collection of stories. When there was someone in bed beside her, the promise of another warm body, that loneliness had seemed absurd. When they arrived, she was part of a couple, with all the power and comfort this conferred. Now she was a woman traveling alone. The air around her seemed to hum with threat.

She started calling Hello! Hello! louder and louder, not caring if she woke anyone up.

Finally, a creaking footstep in the hall. The other woman emerged from her bedroom, peering shyly at her from a door frame. She looked fresh out of the shower, with her long dark hair slicked back and a robe on. Yes? Are you okay?

I’m sorry, she said, breathless, regaining herself a little. I’m sorry to disturb you. I just—has my husband come here? I mean, have you heard him come in today?

The woman shook her head, and then tilted it curiously. I haven’t seen him, she said. Not last night, either. As far as I’m concerned, you came alone.

I didn’t come alone. He came in last night, right after me.

The woman didn’t argue, just shuffled to the kitchen and put the kettle on. What happened?

She had to figure it out, to make it all make sense. Well, we were hiking, she said. We got off the trail. We found this abandoned camp—it wasn’t on the map. He said he’d go ahead and find the trail. And—he disappeared.

She was having trouble breathing. Everything stopped making sense when they reached that camp. It was like he was trying to tell her something. Maybe he had been the boy who disappeared all along. It was so unnerving when you realized someone you loved had lived another life, and that your love did not equal knowledge. At any time, the other life could reassert its hold, and you had no say in the matter.

The woman guided her to the Formica kitchen table, sliding a mug of tea her way. Maybe you came alone, she said.

No. She thrust the woman’s arm away. Just because you didn’t see him last night doesn’t mean he’s not real! I have a husband. Stephen is real.

She rifled through her pockets for some kind of evidence, something to prove their relationship. He had his wallet on him, all his IDs. All she could come up with was the wrapper from his gum. She looked over the woman’s shoulder, to the bulletin board with its cheerful flyers. There was the note she tacked there this morning. But instead of saying STEPHEN AND I ARE HIKING THE HIAWATHA FOREST TRAIL, it just said, GONE HIKING—HIAWATHA FOREST TRAIL.

Did she write that?

It’s all right. The woman puts a hand back on her arm. I disappeared my husband too.

What?

My husband. I disappeared him. That’s why I came up here. You can do things like that, in places like this.

I — don’t understand, she said. Afraid that she did.

A small, impatient toss of the woman’s head. It’s not always a violent act, she said. Sometimes you can’t stand it anymore. You just have to go alone. If you let it happen, and you want it to. You let somebody disappear out of your life. For good, for bad, I don’t know. I’ve done it before. I came here to do it. People can disappear, if you let them.

Her breath was loud in her ears. The impossibility of it.

You came alone, the woman said.

I came alone? she replied.

If she looked back through the clothes in the bedroom, she’d find barely enough for two people. Just one toothbrush in the cup, he’d forgotten his. If she looked again at her life, it was almost easy to let his presence fade from it. It just took a different way of thinking.

She couldn’t see how to do it yet. But she could see a way into it.

In spite of Stephen’s confidence, she had been quietly counting the steps since they took a turn at that crossroads, mentally marking the return journey they might have to take. Maybe it was a sign of being a bad wife, the way she hedged her bets. But she knew she could go back there and continue down the path Stephen had insisted they not take. Just a turn or two through that difficult, twisted maze, she would find the trail opening beautifully—the ranger’s station, the car parked, the radio playing a lazy Sunday afternoon song, the twenty folded like a love note to herself in her boot—like taking another direction in life, erasing a mistake, starting again.

 

 

To read the rest of this story, please purchase a copy of issue #11, which will be released in July 2021. Photo courtesy of Ann Yooper; view more of her work on Flickr.

Blair Hurley is the author of The Devoted, published by W.W. Norton, which was longlisted for The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. She received a 2018 Pushcart Prize and two Pushcart Prize nominations in 2019. Hurley is the recipient of fellowships and residencies from the Ragdale Foundation and the Writer’s Room of Boston. The …

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